“Admit that the waters around you have grown / and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone,” Bob Dylan sang in his classic ballad, “The Times they are A-Changin’,” a tune I’ve found myself humming a lot lately. “If your time to you is worth savin’,” the recent Nobel Laureate warned us, “then you better start swimmin’ / or you’ll sink like a stone.”
What happened earlier this month in Charlottesville challenged us to put aside our collective denial that the proverbial waters around us have indeed grown. White supremacists marched openly in the streets, waving symbols associated with the Holocaust and slavery, and a white nationalist killed an innocent activist when he ruthlessly drove his vehicle into a crowd.
Heeding Dylan’s call, it is time now to act, else we risk drowning in these hateful waters.
This is why I support Anthracite Unite’s petition calling on Congressman Lou Barletta to resign from the National Board of Advisors of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)-designated hate group with eugenicist origins.
Barletta made a name for himself while he was mayor of Hazleton by taking a hardline stance against undocumented immigrants. He claimed they were increasing crime and gobbling up the city’s resources. But he had no evidence to support these claims. In fact, the opposite was true: Immigrants tend to commit less crime than their native-born counterparts do and their arrival has given many small cities such as Hazleton an economic boost.
This is where our collective denial comes in. Contrary to the image that Barletta emerged as an up-and-coming star in the Republican Party because of his willingness to “take stand” and “get tough” on undocumented immigration, the reality is that his links to nativist extremists run deep.
The Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IIRA) he spearheaded in Hazleton did not address any of that city’s actual problems. Joseph Turner of the California-based Save Our State — which SPLC also designates as a nativist extremist group — drafted the original version of the ordinance. He first tried to push it in San Bernardino as part of a bigger effort, in his words, to “save California from turning into a ‘Third World cesspool’ of illegal immigrants.”
When it came time to defend the IIRA in court, Hazleton hired Kris Kobach as its lead attorney. The SPLC has called Kobach “a central figure in the nativist movement” given his role in drafting and defending many of the anti-immigrant laws that have proliferated across the country in recent years.
As for FAIR, its record of nativism stretches back decades. Its founder, John Tanton, once wrote “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” More recently, the group’s current president, Dan Stein, remarked with mean-spirited inaccuracy, “Immigrants don’t come all church-loving, freedom-loving, God-fearing… Many of them hate America, hate everything that the United States stands for. Talk to some of these Central Americans.”
FAIR and its sympathizers work hard to discredit the SPLC. Some go so far as to call the organization a hate group — which is ironic because all they seem to hate is hate itself. SPLC is in fact a highly respectable organization with a long history of effectively fighting against groups like the KKK, of collaborating with law enforcement, and of educating the public on the presence of hate groups and domestic terrorists in our communities.
Thus far, Congressman Barletta has ignored the evidence and denied the seriousness of the threats this hatred poses. The initial statement he made after Charlottesville did not even acknowledge the involvement of white supremacists, and he has problematically equated those who oppose Nazism with Nazis themselves. Especially in such a confusing world and at such a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, we need much more than that from our elected officials, and I think Barletta recognizes this, too. The question, then, is whether he will take a political risk by standing up for what is right or remain silent and let hatred drench us to the bone.
Jamie Longazel is an Associate Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of “Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.”